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Peter Tieryas on bringing ‘more realism to the mecha genre’

In 2016, Peter Tieryas published his debut novel United States of Japan which ended up on our best books of the year list for 2016. Tieryas has described the influence that Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle had on the book, in which the US loses World War II and is occupied by Japan and Germany. In this world, Tieryas puts a cyberpunk twist on the story, using subversive video games and giant mecha. This year, he’s publishing a follow-up set in the same world, Mecha Samurai Empire, which looks to double down on the giant mechs.

In this book, Makoto “Mac” Fujimoto grew up in occupied California, and he dreams of piloting one of the giant mechas. However, he doesn’t have the test scores to enter the prestigious mecha pilot training program at Berkeley Military Academy. After his friend attempts to cheat the entrance exam, they’re both prohibited from taking the test. Mac sets his sights on civilian training, but as tensions between Japan and Germany accelerate, he might not live long enough.

We got the first look at the cover for the book, which hits bookstores on September 18th, 2018, and spoke with Tieryas about what went into creating the book’s alternate world.


Image: Penguin Random House

United States of Japan is an alternate history in which the Axis powers win World War II. Where does Mecha Samurai Empire fit into this world?

I think of United States of Japan as a dystopian mystery with mecha elements which completed the story arc of Ben and Akiko, whereas Mecha Samurai Empire is a full-fledged mecha novel focusing on a group of pilots fighting against the Nazis. Unfortunately, because of the way United States of Japan’s structure was set up as a chase, there was never a moment I could just take a step back and soak in that world the way I wanted to. In Mecha, I was excited to get to explore the world’s technology, culture, and daily life in depth.

Structurally, I followed the paradigm set up by books like Iain M. Banks’ Culture series and games like Final Fantasy, in that each work is a complete standalone. You don’t even need to read the original USJ to enjoy this one. There are links that tie them together for fans, but both Mecha Samurai Empire and the following book have different characters and stories taking place at different times in that history.

You’ve said United States of Japan is a homage to Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle. What are the inspirations for this book?

With USJ, I wanted to pay tribute to The Man in the High Castle and modernize some of the plot elements. With Mecha, I felt like I was getting to tell my own story. I actually drew a lot on my experiences working in gaming and film. A big part of my day job is creating complex animation rigs by studying real-life physics, anatomy vs. hard-surface machines that can sometimes have thousands of separate controls. These rigs can take months to build and have hundreds of scripts. So when it came time for mecha schematics, I really geeked out on the technical aspects while grounding it in the research. I did on tank warfare, jet piloting, and submarine combat.

There are, of course, many anime and gaming influences, from Neon Genesis Evangelion to Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, Sidonia Knights, Patlabor, and lots more.

One thing that was a counter-influence, in that I wanted to go the opposite direction of what’s usually depicted, is that I hate the trope of a “chosen one” driving a “mystical mecha” and being better at it than anyone. In Mecha, each of the cadets worked hard to get the positions they have. Also, the mechas are driven more like tanks with full crews, including engineers, munitions, and navigators. I wanted to bring more realism to the mecha genre, even if they’re fighting gigantic Nazi monsters.

What appeals to you most about alternate histories, and what about the US losing WWII appeals the most?

It’s the opportunity to explore the familiar through the uncannily similar. Re-creating the Cold War as the Third Reich vs. the USJ was fascinating and eerie at the same time. So was reconstructing the history of mecha development through a parallel Vietnam War and Afghanistan conflict.

I studied a lot about Nazis when writing this book, and one of the most interesting, disturbing facts about Hitler’s rise to power was that it was actually constitutional. He was legally voted into power. Hitler promised to make Germany greater than ever, and his focus on a message of economic vitality made most Germans overlook his racist rhetoric.

What would an America besieged by that type of Nazi philosophy look like decades later? Personally, I really wanted to know more about the fate of the minorities, like Asian-Americans, who live under the Nazis. Where would their loyalties lie when the Nazis view them as subhuman, people who should be ethnically cleansed to make way for Aryan superiority?

Your last novel tied in some political overtones about crumbling ideology and what causes empires to fall. Does this book examine similar themes?

The scary thing about empires is that they’re both incredibly strong and surprisingly frail. How many countries in the distant past have disappeared without us even having heard of who they were? In both Mecha and USJ, I explored the idea of changing history through education. If you eliminate certain cultures from the history books or change the facts entirely so that the USJ’s past enemies are rewritten as evil, that becomes their reality.

When I began this book about a war against Nazis, I never thought I’d actually have to explain why the Nazis were bad. But now that I’m seeing Americans who actually support Nazi ideology, I’m stunned, especially as Hitler despised America. Albert Speers’ Inside the Third Reich is a firsthand account of life with Hitler and his inner circle. Their vanity, their insecurities, and their delusions are on full display. When writing the Nazi side, I thought a lot about the absurd melodrama Speers described that led to so much suffering and tragedy. It’s terrifying to think how the fate of so many people was so drastically affected by their decisions. At the same time, when people can rewrite history to the point that there are Americans who espouse Nazism, what I proposed as satire in the first USJ and in the forthcoming Mecha suddenly feels too close to home.

I also make sure to point out that in the desire to villainize an enemy, we can’t be blind to our own actions. There’s a moment that I thought was really important to have in Mecha Samurai Empire. In the mecha corps, there’s a legendary group known as the “Twelve Disciples,” the very first mecha pilots who fought to protect the USJ against the Nazis in the early ‘50s. Decades later, they’re revered by the USJ for the war heroes they were, and there are even shrines to honor their service. But when the cadets meet a group of German-Americans, they learn that the Germans know of their legendary figures as the “Twelve Executioners” who murdered thousands of innocent German civilians, and exemplified why the USJ has to be defeated.

Where does the truth lie?

Those are the kind of questions the cadets, and hopefully the readers, have to tackle as they prepare for the pending war between the two sides.

Why do mechs appeal to you so much?

For me, it’s what the mechas say about the characters that’s their main appeal. Mechas make normal people superhuman, and fulfill a sort of fantastic defiance of nature, using technology. They become akin to our pantheon of modern Greek (and Asian) gods, fighting battles at a larger scale.

I wrote every mecha different, not just the way they look, but the way they fight and the weapons they use. There are some mecha pilots who love close-quarter combat, whereas others like using weapons to attack from a distance. These reflect their personalities and play a key role in their strategic decisions during battle. What I think is most important is that it can’t just become mecha porn, divorced from personal stakes, because that gets boring fast. There has to be meaning in every battle. That’s why I think anime excels in the giant mecha form because they make their characters so relatable.

During the editing process, a huge chunk of my time with my editor, Anne Sowards, was working on the character development and making sure the mecha fights meant something.

Another big difference was how closely I worked with my Japanese publisher, Hayakawa, my editor, Aya Tobo, and my translator, Naoya Nakahara. They gave lots of great feedback and added important elements to its writing. I actually struggled finding the title. It was my agent, Misa Morikawa, who helped select Mecha Samurai Empire, which, I hope, works well.

Are there any particular mechs that helped inspire this book?

First off, the cover artist, John Liberto. His mecha art for USJ got me itching to tell stories about those machines, including the non-bipedal ones. There’s a major section of the book where the main characters have to learn how to pilot by driving a crab mecha, which is very different in the way it articulates and fights.

Also in the book’s cover, you can see the evolution of the mechas’ design and technology. I envisioned them in MSE to be sleeker, focusing on stealth, like a samurai suit mixed with an F1 racer, making them less bulky than in USJ.

Another big influence was Hideo Kojima and his two-game series: Metal Gear and Zone of the Enders. Playing the Jehuty Orbital Frame was an incredible feeling, because it felt like being a samurai in space. Metal Gear represented more than a machine, a type of mechanical proxy god standing for the ideals that have torn humanity apart for decades.

Games that played a massive role in Mecha [even though they don’t] have any mechas are the Persona and Shin Megami Nocturne series. I love the way they’re focused on the students. Even while they engage in big life-and-death struggles over the universe, they still have time to hang out at cafés, establish social links, and shoot the shit together.

Mecha Samurai Empire hits bookstores on September 18th, 2018.

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